–I found this in my drafts folder. And please excuse my language skills–the phrases are by no means correct, but they get the job done.
When I was twelve years old, I first heard of the country of Georgia, and the capital, Tbilisi. Since I grew up in Georgia (the state) this was of interest to me, and I resolved, in the arrogantly assured way of youth, to visit this other Georgia. Thirteen years later, I found myself flying into Tbilisi on a red-eye flight, the last leg of more than 32 hours of traveling. And after training in teaching methods and the Georgian language (Kartuli) I was sent out to live in the country. I am not a stranger to mentally hard circumstances, or pushing myself to succeed, but that first week living with a host family and with negligible communication skills was the hardest and most trying week of my life.
Now, five months later, I am comfortable here. I have a tenuous grasp on the most basic language necessities. I understand this culture and how I, as a woman, should interact. I can navigate the country on the marshrutkas, and haggle with taxis and home-stay owners over a price that’s too high. I have developed a small niche here, and a rhythm—one that will be interrupted for my ten week vacation in the States. Today, as I rode on a marshrutka from Khovle to Tbilisi, I had time to think back over my time here. I find it incredible that I am even here, that thirteen years after my youthfully innocent decision, I have immersed myself in this former Soviet republic. I wish I could encapsulate this experience.
I wish that when people back home ask how it is, I could show them the juxtapositions and let them feel the frustrations. I want them to see springs with water so clear that you drink from them and the banks of the river that are covered in litter until the ground is obscured. I want them to understand that I should not smile at men, as a woman, but then take them to the underground bars that seem like a portal to America. I want to explain how time is a fluid thing here and a marshrutka that should leave at noon could leave anywhere from 11:30 to 1:15. Saqartvelo, as the country is called in the native language, is a nation on the precipice. There is a generation that speaks Russian and eyes Americans with suspicion. There is a younger generation that shouts ‘hello!’ if they realize you speak English and study at universities to move the country forward. Some men expect you to serve and stay quiet and please them, while others treat you as a person with valid opinions. Always, no matter their age, these people are concerned with how you find their country. Always, no matter my opinion at the moment, I respond with positives. ‘Tbilisi dzalian lamazi’. ‘Me miquvars Saqartvelo!’ ‘Khinkhali da khatchapuri aris ghemrieli.’ And Tbilisi is very pretty. I do love Georgia. Khinkhali and khatchapuri are delicious.
But there are facets of this country and this culture that taint the good parts. Worrying that if I smile at a man, he will take that as a sexual invitation. Being harassed so often that I have taken to wearing a ‘wedding’ ring is not a plus for this country. The fact that I have stories of taxi drivers who were ever so physical is not what I hoped for when I moved here. I did not want to ever say that I had to stop seeing a friend because he expected subservience because of my gender. My host mother and two sisters now work 12 hour days, 6 days a week while my host father smokes with friends. This gender gap disgusts me, and is an indication of how poorly race relations and LGBTQ rights are viewed here as well. Georgia is a country stuck in time, and that is partially charming and partially terrifying.